By Howard Meyerson
Butterflies are a common sight for Pat Ruta McGhan, the botanist for the Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary, a 72-acre flowering plant haven in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. In addition to colorful blooms along its trails, the refuge harbors a “pollinator garden” full of prairie smoke, lupine, hoary puccoon and an abundance of milkweed which is cultivated to attract and nourish one of Michigan’s most dramatic butterflies — the monarch.
Once considered just a weed, scientists now know milkweed is essential for monarch survival. Its flowers provide nectar and females lay their eggs on it. Young monarch caterpillars feed on the plant exclusively. Eliminate milkweed and monarchs disappear.
Which is why McGhan grew concerned in 2013 after noticing a significant change.
“I saw four adults the entire season,” McGhan laments. “I used to see them every day. We all grew up with them. To think we might not see those big orange butterflies around is a real loss.”
Midwestern and eastern monarch populations have dwindled for years, according to data collected by insect ecologists and citizen scientists who monitor their status. Butterfly experts fear their dramatic migration to Mexico each fall could become just a memory if conservation efforts aren’t strengthened, a call to action that is prompting more Michiganders to get involved by planting milkweed, creating butterfly gardens and further protecting monarch habitat.
“I’m concerned that our environment is being degraded and we are losing a species,” says Ilse Gebhard, a retired chemist based in Kalamazoo who’s being proactive by annually counting the number of monarch adults and larvae that appear in her yard, where she maintains a prairie planting and 100 milkweed plants.
The 74-year old butterfly enthusiast also volunteers to collect data for the nationwide Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (monarchlab.org), hosted at the University of Minnesota. “It’s like the canary in the coal mine,” Gebhard says. “We are concerned about monarchs, but the problem is bigger; it includes all pollinators. There are very few fallow fields anymore.”
The monarch’s decline has been linked to a variety of causes, from deforestation in Mexico, which reduced the number of overwinter colony sites there, to the disappearance of milkweed in farm fields and along roadsides. Milkweed is less prevalent because of land conversion for development, roadside mowing and greater use of herbicides on farms.
Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor concluded earlier this year that at least 167 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost since 1996. Taylor is the director of Monarch Watch (monarchwatch.com), a conservation and education program hosted at the University of Kansas where he is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He noted on a recent Monarch Watch Blog post that the number of monarchs wintering in Mexico this past season had reached its lowest point in 20 years. They occupied less than one hectare (the equivalent of just under 2.5 acres) of forest land. At peak, during the winter of 1996/97, they draped trees on nearly 21 hectares.
Despite the Midwest population crash, natural resource managers say Western U.S. and other populations are healthy. The monarch, as a species, is not yet endangered.
“It’s been a steady, but precipitous decline,” explains Chris Hoving, the Michigan DNR adaptation specialist and former endangered species coordinator. “They all go down to one place in Mexico, one forest. In the past it would be a tourist destination. The trees there would be just covered with monarchs.” ≈
Award-winning writer and BLUE Undercurrents columnist Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.
How To Help
Garden clubs, butterfly groups and concerned citizens around Michigan are working to improve conditions for monarch butterflies. Their efforts include public education, planting butterfly habitat the development of butterfly gardens. Two links to visit include:
• Michigan Garden Clubs Inc., a federation of garden clubs, is working to protect the monarch by encouraging its members to plant milkweed in home gardens and create butterfly gardens on their properties and in school yards. The group also encourages members to get children involved with the development of butterfly gardens (michigangardenclubs.org).
• Tamara Menas readily educates her clients about the needs of monarch butterflies. She is a co-owner of the Michigan Native Butterfly Farm in Petersburg, Mich., where she sells monarch butterflies and supplies for raising and feeding them, including milkweed. The farm sponsors “tag and release” events where hundreds of monarchs can be released for conservation, education and other purposes. It supplies zoos, garden centers and families with butterflies for events and has a mobile butterfly house that can be transported to a site for events (mibutterflyfarm.com).
To find out more about monarch butterflies and how to protect them, check out Monarch Joint Venture, a public private partnership that works to protect monarch migrations (monarchjointventure.org) and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (cec.org), authors of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan produced in partnership by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.